PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am


It should come as no surprise that the nation responsible for giving us Hello Kitty, tiny trees and the subway chin rest should also produce something as strange as Metabolist architecture.

In the 1950s, Japanese architects Kenzo Tange, Takashi Asada, Kisho Kurokawa and Kiyonori Kikutake, along with writer Noboru Kawazoe, devised a grand plan to build all over Tokyo Bay.

Tange presented the radical 'Plan for Tokyo, 1960: Towards a Structural Reorganisation' at the Tokyo World Design Conference. His vision was nothing if not futuristic; a utopian (some might say dystopian) scheme that would leave Tokyo Bay looking like a set from The Matrix.

And so began the Metabolist movement. Tange and his friends produced a manifesto to explain it: a bilingual pamphlet titled Metabolism 1960: The proposals for a New Urbanism. It was a move that recalled the classic manifestos of the 20th century, such as that by the Futurists who envisaged a world of sports cars, planes and industrial cities.

The Metabolists doubtlessly approved of the Futurists and their antipathy towards anything old. Both movements shared a vision of a brave new world where man was served by technology.

The Metabolists, emerging from a devastated post-war Japan, believed it was time to employ a flexible, changeable urban model. In other words, a Metabolist city could be taken apart and reassembled as required.

Aesthetically, the Metabolists were influenced by the space age. Kurokawa was the hippest member of the group and his Nakagin Capsule Tower of 1972 came to epitomise Metabolist architecture and all its triumphs and failures. Providing bachelor pads for Tokyo businessmen, Nakagin appears to have been lifted from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Comprising 140 steel pods bolted to a central concrete tower, the apartment complex was designed so each of the units could be removed and updated.

However, the prohibitive costs involved means none has yet been removed. Each of the pods con- tained a miniature bathroom (think economy-class airline), living space and kitchenette. They were fitted with the latest gadgets, including a television and reel-to-reel tape deck.

There have been calls to demolish Nakagin because the tower contains asbestos and the pods are cramped. Plus they leak. But just before his death, in 2007, Kurokawa suggested the tower be preserved and the pods replaced with more contemporary versions. With Japan's economy on the ropes, nothing has been decided.

The Metabolists inspired several Western architects to experiment with pod-style architecture, the most notable being Moshe Safdie, who created the iconic Habitat 67 for the 1967 World Exposition in Montreal, Canada.

Almost 40 years after the Metabolists withered away, a new generation of Japanese architects, such as Jin Hidaka, is reconsidering the relevance of the movement.

In September and October, Hidaka will be speaking on Metabolism at the Design 2050 Union of International Architects congress in Tokyo.

But will he be drafting a manifesto? We can only hope.